The upcoming Sony biopic Concussion illustrates the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu and his struggle against the NFL. In real life, Omalu, a forensic pathologist, conducted research on NFL players and while doing so, discovered a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The one particular case that led him to the discovery was the autopsy he conducted on late Mike Webster, a former NFL player who played center for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs. Prior to his death at age 50 and post-retirement from the NFL, Webster had suffered from depression, amnesia, dementia, personality changes, aggressive behavior and bone and muscle pain. Yet, the NFL only marked him as partially disabled, and gave him the lowest disability claim possible, just $3,000 a month for his troubles. Omalu examined his brain tissue after death, as well as the brain tissue from eight other NFL players and found brain damage that was previously only found in Alzheimer patients. This led him to discover CTE which, according to Boston University’s website, is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head.
Omalu published his findings in the journal Neurosurgery in 2005. The study’s conclusion wrote, “This case highlights potential long-term neurodegenerative outcomes in retired professional National Football League players subjected to repeated mild traumatic brain injury. The prevalence and pathoetiological mechanisms of these possible adverse long-term outcomes and their relation to duration of years of playing football have not been sufficiently studied. We recommend comprehensive clinical and forensic approaches to understand and further elucidate this emergent professional sport hazard.” But the NFL ignored those recommendations, writing to the journal to get the article retracted, stating that they disagreed and that this was a misunderstanding.
Omalu’s work angered the NFL. A line from the Concussion trailer says, “You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week.” And it seems as if all the NFL cared about was keeping their ownership of Monday, keeping their ratings high, and keeping their money. The NFL had their own doctors, in a committee called the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee, who published multiple studies stating that repeated head bashing does not cause brain damage. With these contrasting scientific results, you could question the objectivity of science. Or you could question the integrity of the multi-billion dollar corporation with much to lose.
As if repeating their silence of Omalu, the NFL contacted producers and representatives of the Concussion film, and in email exchanges that have been exposed by hackers, it has been shown that Sony altered their movie so as to not antagonize the NFL too much. The movie highlights the uphill battle Dr. Omalu had against the NFL, a league who kept silencing his voice and his findings, and even called him a “no-name Nigerian with some bullshit theory.” In their depiction of these events, Sony had also agitated the NFL. But unlike Omalu, who would not be silenced and fought for the truth to prevail, Sony bowed down to the corporation that controls the most profitable sports league, and the most watched game. It’s ironic, really, that in telling a story about perseverance and not giving in to the man, that was exactly what Sony did. But Omalu wanted to publish his findings to help people, and help the NFL. Unfortunately, Sony just wants to tell a sympathetic story that will earn them millions of dollars in the box office. Both corporations are in it for the money, rather than the health and safety of athletes and the future of the sport.